Local Adivasis Call Statue of Unity ‘Publicity Stunt’ Before Polls

Adivasis living in the tribal belt around Sardar Patel’s Statue of Unity have raised their voices in protest.

4 min read

A year before Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister of India, he declared his vision for the country – a bullet train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, and the Statue of Unity.

Although the former vision has hit several roadblocks especially when it comes to procuring the land for the high-speed rail corridor, Sardar Patel’s statue – the Statue of Unity – which will be the tallest statue in the world has had a smooth ride so far.

Just when the statue was deemed ready for inauguration, Adivasis living in the tribal belt around Sardar Patel’s statue have raised their voices in protest once again. They claim that the state government did not seek their approval on the project and kicked them out of their lands to build the statue.

On 31 October, PM Narendra Modi will inaugurate the statue to the world and he plans to use the platform to cement his claim as the inheritor of Sardar Patel’s legacy – of being the ‘iron man’ of this century. Meanwhile, Adivasis have decided to hold protest marches on 31 October and will observe a day-long hunger strike.


Illegal Statue?

Former Gujarat Chief Minister Suresh Mehta claimed that the ‘Statue of Unity’, a memorial dedicated to Sardar Patel, is illegal and has been built by the BJP to garner votes. Mehta alleged that the BJP government in Gujarat went ahead with the construction of the statue despite local tribals registering their protest when the project was first conceptualised some years ago.

Someone who has not been in the political spotlight in two decades, Mehta fervently announced that over 5,000 tribals living in the vicinity of the memorial will observe a fast on 31 October.

Mehta claimed that the state government violated the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) (PESA) Act of 1996, which empowers local residents to take decisions through gram sabhas.

“Under the PESA Act, decisions taken by gram sabhas are final and binding. But, when tribals of that area, through gram sabhas, raised objections against the project, the state government did not listen. This is a violation of the Act. This project is also illegal because the government did not conduct any environmental impact assessment. It is only meant for publicity. It is a politically-motivated project keeping in mind the 2019 elections.”
Suresh Mehta, Former Gujarat Chief Minister

He added that the budget meant for the maintenance of Narmada canals was diverted for this project.

State Government Offers Compensation

"Land of six villages were first acquired by the government in the 1960s for the main dam project. We have not received any compensation for that till date. Now, that land is being used for the statue project. We want the government to compensate us before unveiling the statue," said Shailesh Tadvi, a tribal from Vagadiya village.

Meanwhile the state government announced compensation for 13 villages affected by the Statue of Unity project. The government said compensation per head will be Rs 7.5 lakh per hectare. The release said that the project-affected who want land for their land will be given the same while those who want cash compensation instead will be given the same too.

Another tribal, Arvind Tadvi, claimed that though water of the Narmada has reached Kutch through canals, around 28 villages near the dam are yet to get water.

According to tribal activist Lakhan Musafir, people living in 72 villages near the dam will observe fast on October 31 as a mark of protest. "We have also urged tribals of the eastern belt of Gujarat, from Dang till Ambaji, to join our protest," said Musafir.


Villagers Write Open Letter to PM

The heads of 22 villages situated near Sardar Sarovar Dam wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday, 29 October, stating that villagers would not welcome him at the inauguration of the Statue of Unity on 31 October. Local tribal leaders have also announced a boycott of the function citing destruction of natural resources due to the memorial.

“These forests, rivers, waterfalls, land and agriculture supported us for generations. We survived on them. But, everything is being destroyed now and celebrations are also planned. Don’t you think it’s akin to celebrating someone’s death? We feel so.”
Open Letter to PM by Sarpanchs of 22 villages.

"We all villagers want to tell you with extreme grief that we will not welcome you on 31 October. Even if you come here like an unwanted guest, you are not welcome here," the letter stated. They alleged that people's hard-earned money is being wasted on projects like Statue of Unity, though several villages of the area are still deprived of basic facilities like schools, hospitals and drinking water.

“If Sardar Patel could see the mass destruction of natural resources and injustice done to us, he would cry. When we are raising our issues, we are persecuted by police. Why are you not ready to listen to our plight?”
Open Letter to PM by Sarpanchs of 22 villages.

Protests Pick Up Pace

Meanwhile, unidentified persons tore and defaced posters of Modi and Chief Minister Vijay Rupani in several parts of the district in the last few days. “People have started defacing posters showing Narendra Modi and Vijay Rupani. This is how the protest starts and we will take it all the way,” said Praful Vasawa, a tribal activist.

He claims that Adivasis from Ambaji to Umargaon will participate in the protest and will hold a day-long hunger strike.

“For too long, they have sullied Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s name for politics. This land belongs to us, but they (BJP), for the sake of their vote bank, didn’t even care to ask for our permission to build the statue. For the sake of development, we Adivasis have sacrificed a lot. We gave up our lands for the Narmada Dam and still don’t receive its water.”
Praful Vasava, Tribal Activist

“As per tribal tradition, when a family member dies, the community observes a day long fast. Similarly, we will also hold a day long hunger strike as long as Narendra Modi remains in the state on 31 October.”

(With inputs from PTI)

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